FIELD 2 – “International Immersion”

A core part of the Harvard Business School MBA curriculum is FIELD, divided into 3 distinct parts;

FIELD 1 – Leadership Intelligence: An introspective classroom based-program focused on self-awareness.
FIELD 2 – Global Intelligence: A global immersion program, with a team-based project in an emerging economy.
FIELD 3 – Integrative Intelligence: Groups of 6 MBA first years are tasked with launching a microbusiness within the semester.

I’m not sure how I feel about the module names (?!), but click here for more information about: HBS FIELD.

In each section of FIELD, the emphasis is on ability for practical ‘doing’ skills, rather than knowledge-based learning. I’ll admit I was intrigued by the experience prior to HBS, and while many programs now offer some sort of ‘experiential learning component’ the effort and resources put into it by HBS did make it one of the more unique programs.

Most of the top schools offer some form of experiential learning, but I found it quite unusual to a) have it scheduled as part of the formal curriculum and also b) what this enables is to work in a group with your fellow students rather than an individual experience.

Instead most other schools focus on student-driven/optional programs which while giving greater flexibility inevitably offers a different type of experience – if it happens at all – due to all the other great things that are competing for your attention.

FIELD 2 takes place in the first year, with preparation in Cambridge and a placement in between the two semesters. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my time in Chengdu in China – not somewhere I was familiar with before my placement. While not a common tourist destination, it’s certainly somewhere interesting to visit from an academic point of view.

A chengdu street

A Chengdu market street – fully immersed

The course places you in a small team of 6 MBA students, assigned a project from a local company in your placement city and given a week to propose a solution. A significant portion of the week is dedicated to understanding the local market, tastes and preferences, ensuring mutual benefit for both team and company.

It’s been a fascinating week, and I was really lucky to be working with a social enterprise in startup community, which completely challenged my own preconceptions of business in China. Working with them led to a very different type of learning from just a tourist trip/b-school trek.

I also feel pretty pleased to have completed a small project that really seemed to influence our hosts, and changed the way they were thinking about a problem. They were more than happy to stay in touch and promised to share the results, which we will hopefully get to see soon!

For this semester, we are now on to the next part of the FIELD program, FIELD 3…

First Semester – Diversity and the Case Method

It’s been an unbelievable first semester at HBS, and I’m still catching my breath. The first semester is notoriously tough, and things become a little more about finding your own path in the second (Elective Curriculum, EC) year, once the first year (Required Curriculum, RC) is over.

After the opening of a new year I both have a little breathing space and time to reflect on 2014, as well as my first semester. I’m lucky enough to be on my way to China (via Thailand) for the first big installment of HBS’s FIELD program so I am writing this with the best view I’ve had in quite some time…

R&R during FIELD

R&R before FIELD

With a semester down and a shocking 25% of the MBA course already completed, I can at least provide a little more depth on some of those things you probably wanted an insider’s viewpoint – I know I did – before you apply.

Attitudes and Diversity at HBS

A big one before I left, and like many I’d read this NY Times article. Would these be my sort of people? Would it really be a diverse experience? Well the answer, to me at least, is a resounding yes.

Almost every case we discuss seems to have someone with a background in that or a similar industry. Everyone seems to have an amazing range of interests, even those with a more traditional career background. There’s a really nice group of LGBT’s in my section, and a huge numbers of nationalities are represented by the flags at the back of our classroom. It’s certainly more diverse than the perception I had before I got to HBS.

In addition to the vast array of backgrounds, I have to say everyone is a whole lot… nicer and collaborative than I expected. HBS I suppose has a reputation as the a temple of capitalism and of representing the dog-eat-dog cutthroat corporate world. It is highly competitive for sure, but not at all costs, and there is plenty of kindness and great team spirit shown by my fellow students.

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

Case Method & Grading System

The case method has gradually been adopted by many of the leading B-schools for at least part of their teaching – Harvard (as pioneers of the method) use it the most and teach virtually all their course material by the case method. I’ll readily admit that this doesn’t always make sense, with occasional classes away from the core content sometimes appearing to be ‘an exercise in disguise’. However, most of the material does adhere to the case philosophy pretty closely.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, this video does a pretty good job of explaining the preparation involved in this type of class. The chance to discuss, try out your own ideas and engage with the professors is highly valuable. I’m still stunned that my (at that point future) professors were greeting me by name in the week lead-up to first class – each professor learns by pre-provided photos the name of every student, along with their academic and career background, before the semester begins.

If you’re familiar with it or watched the video, you’ll understand how crucial class participation is. HBS pushes you, hard, to participate, and this can cause quite a bit of pressure. Grading (varies with course) of class participation is roughly comprised 50% of your final course grade. This consists of how much you’ve participated and whether you have made a valuable comment.

With 94 students in each class, the average is to ‘comment’ once every two classes or so. With grades allocated as a 1 – top 10%, 2 – middle 80% and 3 – bottom 10% of each class, the aim appears to be to identify extremes while reducing comparisons between the rest of the class.

The pressure while still unfamiliar with this system is intense in the first semester. As an international student I feel fortunate to have English as my first language in this context. The English of those with a second language is genuinely superb, just a slight lag in reaction times can cause students initially to be unable to get into the conversation.

On a positive though, many of those in the class have said to me that while this format is taught initially, it is the best language lesson you can get, and already seemingly fluent speakers now sound like native speakers.

There was a revealing insight from one of my professors in the last semester;

Even just five years ago, I walked into the classroom in the first semester and I usually knew who would be my ‘three’s’ [the bottom grade]. It was the international students, as their grasp of English left them at a significant disadvantage. Today, its not at all the same – the international students all have truly exceptional language skills and you often can’t tell who is not a native speaker

Verdict so far

The loan I have is the biggest financial liability I’ve ever had (excluding a shared mortgage) and the first statement caused my parents to ask if it’s a mistake. If you’re reading this you probably know what a commitment HBS is (and many other top tier B-schools are). In that context I have no hesitation in saying I have no regrets whatsoever in taking up their offer of admission. It’s a phenomenal place to be, and the experience is only just beginning.

P.S. Good luck to all those applying in R2 this year!

Next time: FIELD2: The adventure abroad

First month at HBS

What. A. Ride. I’m only able to write this because I accidentally turned up half an hour early to something. My head is just spinning…

At HBS you’re an active participant. In everything. From class, to extra-curricular involvement, so with 100% Type-A personalities organizing a social gathering, the pace is relentless. It’s not like my undergraduate studies, and I already treasure the rare hour or two to myself I can allow myself every couple of days.

The first few weeks (edit: month and a half! Really?!) are everything I expected, and more. There’s been so much I could mention right now, and simply haven’t got room. I’ve been trying to decide how I can keep this updated in a sensible way as the initial rush begins to calm a little, considering my new workload. So I’m going to give a brief update and try and regularly cover a topic I think might be interesting to those outside the ‘bubble’.

HBS Baker Library from across the Charles River

HBS Baker Library from across the Charles River

Section Life

HBS is divided into sections, with roughly 10% of the class in each (currently 94 in mine). I’ve been allocated to the best section, obvs! The section becomes your academic and social center. All classes are taken together – a significant piece in itself due to the case discussion method in use at HBS.

While the professors are truly excellent teachers, you’re meant to learn from each other as much as the professor themselves. It’s an engaging experience, and certainly no falling asleep in the back row (however much you may want to)…

We’ve recently discovered that there is no ‘science’ to putting sections together, no late night evenings with lots of coffee looking at the backgrounds of the 900+ students as we’d assumed up until now. They split the class into 10 equal parts, and the only consideration is to check for a roughly even mix of international students to US nationals. The amazing diversity of the class admitted each year does the rest for them, and so far it’s incredibly successful. The diverse background of my classmates is staggerring and much more different than I’d expected based on the traditional background of your typical MBA.

If you’re looking at HBS as a possible school, I strongly urge you to see a class if at all possible (ideally two differing subjects) and if not, at least watch the video above. The level of preparation is extensive, allowing the class to take a more ‘free-form’ discussion rather than a tightly scripted one.

As well as inside the classroom, your section becomes your social unit too, actively encouraged by the school – a close bond outside the classroom fosters openness and sharing within it. It doesn’t always happen and work out (there are always whispers and rumors of the ‘broken’ section), but usually it does.

It begins from the first day and we now have an elected president, treasurer, social chairs, athletic rep, international rep. Intra-mural sporting events within the class are competed between sections, party attendance is a competition between each section for the highest… competition seems to be a theme at HBS.

Looking ahead

So far, we’ve been what feels like an incredibly busy time. Apparently it is not. Extra-curricular activities are just kicking off, the recruiting season is now about to begin (we have been protected so far at HBS, unlike some other schools, but this is about to end already) and exhaustion levels look likely to escalate.